Can you have too much of a good thing ? This was the 333rd performance of MacMillanís Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House. It is never absent for long from our schedules here, and is a reliable box office draw - this series of performances sold out. This revival has been slightly redesigned by the original designer, Nicholas Georgiadis, so it is obvious that the management are investing in this production for some time to come: we can expect many more performances.
I suspect that for a number of the audience this was by no means their first R&J. Can a production still keep fresh after so much exposure ? Does it still work ? The answer from the audience would seem to be a resounding yes. It seems the ticket buyers are happy to see established artists refine their presentation of the principal roles still further, and are enthused by recent debuts. And the production does seem almost unsinkable, propelled along by Prokofievís score and MacMillanís passionate dances and the dramatic opportunities he gives the lovers.
But even with the best loved productions, a certain tiredness or flakiness can set in. Although the performance on 26 Feb was warmly received and featured some gorgeous dancing from Zelensky as Romeo and a deeply touching Juliet from Sarah Wildor, the evening as a whole was somewhat uneven, and some points of the drama didnít come across as clearly as they might. Much the same has been true about some performances of Manon last season, a work which has similarly been a constant in the repertoire: the performances managed to look slightly stale in some details, with an accumulation of small slips or and over- or undercooking of minor roles that dulled the sparkle.
So it was here. The roistering tarts in Veronaís marketplace are perhaps just too strident and need toning down a bit. On the other hand, the entrance of Escalus, Prince of Verona, to quell the marketplace brawl, needs beefing up. It needs to be a good deal more impressive and authoritative than it was here. The fighting stopped, and almost incidentally someone came down the stairs almost in the dark. A pity that this entrance, which can be so effective, just seemed to be thrown away (especially as the performance was dedicated to the memory of Leslie Edwards, who originated the role). The death of Paris in the final scene also seemed oddly rushed and perfunctory.
Some of the sword fighting needed a bit more fizz in it: it is a slightly odd production when you notice how much more impressive a fighter Benvolio is than Mercutio. For that matter Watsonís Benvolio was altogether more watchable as a dancer than Johan Persson as Mercutio: Perssonís performance somehow just didnít project, not to where I was sitting in the amphi at any rate, and it was hard to engage with the character. As a result the death scene, which can be gripping in the right hands, just seemed to go on for hours.
But regardless of all that, Romeo and Juliet can still provide a luscious dance treat just on the basis of the principals alone. Juliet was taken by Sarah Wildor, partnered by guest artist Igor Zelensky, who had originally been invited to dance with Bussell, who is now on maternity leave. For the record, I had quite mixed feelings about Zelensky before the performance: his dancing is tremendous, strong, effortless, but as an actor he has always left me unmoved. In previous appearances in MacMillan works here, he has seemed somewhat under-rehearsed.
I canít say my view was completely transformed by this experience, but he did seem in total command of the choreography, and danced with great assurance and control. His partnering of Wildor was full of tender care, and his Romeo carried more romantic conviction than I have seen before (compared to when he was partnering Assylmuratova in last summerís Kirov production, for instance). The lifts are effortless. Even so, the second act did sag slightly.
Wildor is initially a very young and skittish Juliet, fresh and impulsive. Her pulling of Romeoís hand to her heart to feel how it is beating at the beginning of the balcony scene made the gesture, which can appear quite contrived and stagey, look completely natural and spontaneous. Her route to maturity is carefully traced by Wildor, a very touching and rounded portrayal. She seemed at ease with Zelensky as a partner, and ready to fling herself at him with abandon the in the bedroom pas de deux. The final scene in the crypt still has the same powerful grip, no matter how many performances you have seen before.
The revisions to the design of the production do not ultimately present a net gain. The gilded birdcages in Julietís room are a nice touch. The crypt scene is creepier: but the rather skeletal marketplace set looks curiously modernist and out of place against costumes which still suggest medieval Verona. The staircase rather dominates the balcony scene - somehow the Ďstaircase pas de deuxí just doesnít have the same ring to it, does it ?
This production of Romeo and Juliet is with us to stay, and there will be many more individual performances to savour in the leading roles. But the spirit and the freshness of the production need as much attention as the decor, for the Royal to do their best for this much loved work.